Great Fermentations has been a long-time cornerstone of the emerging Indiana homebrewing scene offering local supplies and education. Owner Anita Johnson has played an important role in launching the hobby, and in some cases profession, of many local homebrewers while also spending volunteer time as a technical editor for Brew Your Own magazine and organizer of the Indiana State Fair Brewers Cup. We recently sat down with Anita to discuss past memories, emerging homebrew trends, and the virtues of sheltering the homeless in your warehouse.
IB: Your bio mentions brewing your first batch of homebrew in 1995. What was it about that experience that motivated you to purchase a homebrew supply shop?
You know, starting a homebrew shop was the last thing on my mind. We brewed our first batch and I loved it. It was a combination of all the things I loved with science, art, food, and creative passion. It was something that kind of took me by storm and just kept going. So the store that was already in Indianapolis was actually going out of business and we paid that person a little bit of money to teach us how to do it and we had a homebrew store. It was kind of on a whim and that was about 17 years ago.
IB: What kind of ingredients and supplies were you able to offer people at that time? I’m guessing it’s a lot different than what you can offer today.
It’s crazy different. We carried about 10-15 types of grains then and now we have 55-60. We had maybe 20 different hops and now we have over 40. We didn’t carry everything from Wyeast then, now we carry every beer, mead, and bacteria strain they make and we sell a lot of it. We now have about 120 different wine kits on the floor, but started out with maybe 12.
We carried a lot of malt extract kits then, now we carry very few. That’s primarily because of our outlook – we get people started at an intermediate level in the beginning because it’s not that hard and I think they’ll be happier with the product. It’s changed a lot and we see a lot more all-grain brewing now. I think the amount of our first inventory order wouldn’t even fill my grain room now.
IB: Great Fermentations has been a fixture in the homebrewing scene for quite a while now. What are some of your favorite memories from that time?
I like to see the innovation. I can remember when Rob Caputo, who is now the head brewer at Flat 12, was a homebrewer and he was quite an experimenter. I can remember a Wit he made with a sour mash that was fantastic, but it’s very hard to recreate that when you’re dealing with wild yeast and bacteria. I remember beers he made that used the wood from Tabasco barrels. They were very strange but actually very good. I also remember a guy who brought in a braggot or gruit that he made from his grandfather’s recipe. He was very excited to share it but ended up spilling it and the store smelled like vomit for two days. I have no idea what was in there but it was horrible. But the neat part about that is the same guy brought in a gruit just the other day and it was wonderful.
So it’s interesting to see how people progress. Rob went from an experimenting homebrewer to head brewer at Flat 12 and this other fellow went from producing not so great stuff to something that was quite drinkable and very different. Other professional brewers have come through the store. Darren Connor from Bier Brewery worked in the store for nine years, Scott Ellis from Three Wise Men worked for us, and Dan Krzywicki from Fountain Square Brewing also worked for us. Mark Havens started homebrewing here and in a year and a half was head brewer at Oaken Barrel. I never pretend to have taught them what they know; they’re certainly responsible for their own success. But it’s neat to see people take an avocation and make it their vocation.
IB: Be honest, does your position require you to try a lot of bad homebrew?
(Laughs) Yes! I am a beer judge and one thing I can’t taste is oxidation unless it’s way over the top. And it’s because I get used to tasting an awful lot of oxidized beer that comes across my counter. So yes, I have to taste a lot of bad beer, but I also look at it as a teaching opportunity. And if a brewer says they really want my honest opinion, then we’re free to kind of discuss it. But I’m always gentle because it is their creation and I want to encourage them to do better.
IB: What is the most common mistake you see beginning homebrewers make and what advice would you give to help them avoid that?
I taste an awful lot of caramelized beers. People want to slide into the hobby doing partial boils which often leads to caramelization of the wort and a darker beer then they intended. If they can do a full boil, it gives you a more diluted solution with less chance of caramelizing. If you’re using an electric stove, you can take your pot off the burner before adding malt extract and make sure the extract is well dissolved before putting it back on the burner. They can also do a late addition of malt extract where you save part of it for the end and avoid having all of the extract in for the full boil. The other problem with partial boils is you get less hop utilization and the beers tend to be underhopped. Beginners are often afraid of hops because they don’t want a beer that’s too bitter.
The other big thing is sanitation. People think they can sanitize dirty equipment and it will work. But it needs to be a three-step process of clean, rinse, and then sanitize everything, every time. If they get that process down, they’ll have a drinkable beer. It still might not be the beer they were hoping for, but it will be drinkable.
IB: What are some of the new trends in homebrewing that are starting to emerge?
Session ales and sour ales are becoming more popular, and experimenting with bourbon barrel aging is well on its way. I’m glad to see the new Brew in a Bag process emerging because it makes all-grain brewing accessible to people who wouldn’t normally have tried it. I see people experimenting with blending yeast strains and really paying attention to fermentation temperature. Also, there is a renewed interest in water chemistry which has so much to do with how malt character and hop character blend. People start brewing and try to get the basics down and then water chemistry and fermentation temperature are things they can tweak easily and make much better beer. We don’t taste the hardness of our water and how harsh that makes beer because we’re used to it. But then you go somewhere else and compare our beers to theirs and it’s really different.
The alcohol content of beer has been increasing where 17 years ago a 5-6% beer was a big beer. Now people expect to drink an 8% IPA. So the alcohol content keeps getting higher and the hopping rate keeps going up. Our recipe for VIPA (Very India Pale Ale) was a very hoppy beer 15 years ago and now it’s nothing. So we’ve issued a challenge to our customers to help us reformulate that beer to today’s standards. But I think you’ll see people come back from the big side and brew more session ales. Anybody can make a high-alcohol, highly-hopped flavor buster, but the finesse of a session beer is where you really show off your skill as a brewer.
I think the sour beer trend is a great thing because it really takes some science and art combined with a lot of patience to make a good sour beer. With this one, I think it’s being driven more by craft brewers than homebrewers. But there is a correlation between the two and a lot of times craft beer trends are driven by homebrew trends. That’s the neat part about this because we have so many people cross over.
It used to be that people just had a bunch of equipment stashed in the corner of their basement or garage that they pulled out to brew. Now people have these awesome brewing setups and they’re putting up big buildings in their backyard to make beer. I think that’s really great because people who have hobbies are more active, more interesting, and more engaged in life. I see that as a big trend – they’re investing in equipment so they can pursue a lifelong hobby.
IB: You mentioned the correlation between craft beer trends and homebrew trends. What are some examples of craft beer trends that were driven by the homebrewing community?
Denny Conn’s Rye Pale Ale swept through the homebrewing scene and then two or three breweries made his recipe. Now you see a lot more Rye Pale Ales. So that’s one that started in homebrewing. You now see Classic American Pilsner, which is a style from pre-Prohibition that has been reinvented. That originated with a homebrewer named Jeff Renner up in Michigan.
IB: What are some of the odd things you see homebrewers attempt to do?
I had a fellow call me once who wanted to dispense beer with a CO2 tank under 800 pounds of pressure and he was too cheap to buy a regulator. He was going to put a barb on his tank and try to dispense beer with unregulated CO2 through a line that wasn’t rated for that much pressure. And what do I know, I’m a female, and he let me know that I was clearly just trying to sell him a regulator. After a while of this, I just told him what he was doing was unsafe and I couldn’t condone it. I have no idea if he blew himself up or not.
IB: What are some of the crazier things that have happened in the store?
When you’ve been in business for 17 years a lot of wild things happen. One summer afternoon when we were on 86th street a guy ran in the store and asked if we had a bathroom. So I directed him to the bathroom and he came back out walking rather calmly and just went on his way. Five minutes later an Indianapolis police officer ran in, flashed his badge, and asked if I knew the guy who just come in here and demanded to know where he was. I told him the guy had just used the bathroom and walked out. The office threw up his hands and exclaimed that the guy had “just flushed the drugs.”
There was a rainy night in December when we were still located in Broad Ripple. I was there late doing bookkeeping when there was a knock on the door. It was a homeless fellow we knew from the neighborhood with all of his possessions on his back. He asked if he could stay in our warehouse because it was raining and the area he stayed in down by the river was flooded. So I said sure and put him up in the warehouse and he stayed there until spring. That was quite a challenge because he didn’t understand that it was my warehouse and he shouldn’t do things like move my inventory around or start a fire in a keg to keep warm. My husband would go in to get inventory and the guy would look at him like what are you doing in my house? I brought over a heater for him but he took it apart and destroyed it.
The worst part was it was a rented warehouse and this fellow found some paint and decided to do some painting. He painted around the palettes on the floor and he painted the garage door. My landlord was the type of person who is perfect. His hair was all perfect, there was nothing off on his clothes, there wasn’t a gum wrapper in his car. So he drives up to his warehouse and his door is now a different color than the rest of it. So when the weather broke, I had to let him know it was time to leave. I would say no good deed goes unpunished.
IB: Any final thoughts?
One of the things I might add about homebrewing is that a couple years ago we went through a hop shortage. The market has righted itself, but there are still hops like Amarillo, Centennial, Citra, and Simcoe that are in very short supply. Most people who have been involved with homebrewing have never gone through rationing, they’ve always been able to get as much as they want. People get angry with us because we limit quantities. But the guy who buys three pounds of Citra in January, then makes money reselling it on the internet, shorts the guy who comes in and can’t get any in June.
I guess what I would want to tell homebrewers is we’re all in this together and to use those hops wisely. Those are such great hops and really wonderful as finishing hops, but don’t waste them on bittering just because you can. We want everyone to have a little bit. So we’ll all get along better if they understand we’re trying to please the most people with a limited supply.
The homebrewing scene in Indiana is really vibrant on several fronts. You have quite a few homebrew shops that are really good, and if you go to Chicago there may be three that are decent. In Indianapolis we have two, there is one in Fort Wayne, one in Evansville, and a couple in Bloomington. We go out and price shop and figure out if we’re high or low, but we don’t have everything and some things we just can’t compete on. But if you want a local shop around so that you can get fresh yeast in the summer, or get that little part you need when you’re brewing, then you need to support them.